Edmund Husserl concerned about the uncertainty of assumptions of the natural sciences – such as the existence of the external world or the constancy of nature – develops a philosophical system which he calls phenomenology: the philosophy of experience. In this method, one studies experience while suspending any pre-existing beliefs by a process he calls ‘bracketing.’ Given subject matter is converted from external object to lived experience leading to his slogan, “Back to the things themselves.” For instance a tree is not seen as an object separate from experience but as the perception we experience. Proximate reality then is the experience of an object rather than the object itself.2
Phenomenology is picked up by many philosophers and some psychologists in the 20th century. We already alluded to Martin Heidegger who uses phenomenology to investigate internal and external reality in his challenging book, Being and Time. While his initial intention is to understand the concept of ‘being’ in general, he decides the most effective way to investigate it is to use phenomenology to understand his individual being, in German, dasein. Early in his investigation, he notes that dasein perceives at once ‘being-in-the-world.’ From this starting point he determines that the world is a region of human concern, shared with others, and man’s involvement in the world is constitutive of man’s being.3
From these sources, we learn that proximate reality is assembled from sensory perceptions by the organizing process of the mind, and while not absolutely reliable, can be trusted when based on sufficient evidence and confirmatory experience. By suspending judgment on the context of things, we can live the experience of things at hand, and the world we experience becomes integral to our own being.
As always, many philosophers do not agree with all or even any of these assessments of proximate reality, but each of these concepts was derived from deep thinking about the problem. Fidelity to philosophy means giving them substantial thought before discarding them.
1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 17-25.
2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers. 1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 502-509.
3Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.
“ … reality is a term of discourse based on a psychic complex of memories, associations, and expectations, but considered in its ideal independence by the assertive energy of thought.” – George Santayana
Of course an individual’s concept of internal reality will color the interpretation of the other tiers of reality. Internal reality is by definition accessible without the use of the senses; proximate reality is my term for the composite of things as they present to us directly through the senses. Now on the face of it, we should have no doubt about the reality within the reach of sensation, especially vision, but philosophically we want to confirm that assumption and investigate the consequences.
For example, in the last blog, I alluded to Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Pure Reason notes that real things can only be experienced by us as perceptions – in fact we can never know the ‘thing-in-itself.’ For example, a red apple is only red because of the way its surface reflects light to an eye with a certain physiology; it is not red in-itself. However Kant believes the mind naturally takes perceptions and places them into categories such as cause and effect or possibility and impossibility. From this Kant creates his “Copernican revolution”; reality in not mainly a function of external things but is generated by the mind’s organizing of external perceptions, that is the center moves from the things themselves to man’s mind. His model did in fact start a revolution, that is, a new field of philosophy known as German idealism which dovetailed nicely with 19th century romanticism.
George Santayana provides a critical analysis of the reality of perceptions in The Life of Reason. He agrees with Kant that the perceived world is universally experienced by man as occurring in space and time. He observes that perception does not define a reality, rather reveals a ‘chaos of multitudinous impressions’ mixed with internal feelings and emotions. Using the faculty of memory, vestiges of prior perceptions are correlated to current perceptions to give form to reality, a process he identifies as intelligence. Knowledge is a recognition of something absent in direct perception – representation. In response to the skeptic, he says we cannot expect certainty in our knowledge of external reality, but belief is warranted by evidence (of the senses) as revealed through understanding. That is, pragmatically, reality is the mind’s impression of the immediate world that assures consistency in future perceptions and sensations.1
(to be continued next post)